Valais — The «nec plus ultra» of Valais wine
The “nec plus ultra”
of Valais wine
Some 30 Valais vineyards produce and develop superb liqueur-like wines (liquoreux) but only in limited quantities. In 1986 the Charter of Grain Noble ConfidenCiel set up a framework for the high quality of these rare wines.
Most Valais winemakers offer wines with a range of sweetness and strength; in this part of Switzerland they are accustomed to a diversity that is unique in the world (white, red, rosé and sweet). “The Charter has brought about a refocusing of the wines” says Gilles Besse in Vétroz. Until 1997, his amigne Mitis, one of the liquoreux produced on a large scale (30 barrels of 225 litres in an average year) was a product of “cryo-extraction technology, pressed from frozen grapes.” But since ten years he has followed the strict criteria of the Charter: over-ripening the grapes on the plant, and a restriction to only six varieties (amigne, arvine, ermitage, pinot gris, sylvaner and païen).
Accepting the responsibilities of rarity
The age of the vines is fixed at fifteen years, which effectively prevents any dreams of a huge expansion. Despite her great success, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz hardly produces any more than when she started in 1988: three to five barrels of marsanne and one to three of arvine. She could easily sell three times as much but there’s no prospect of that. “These wines are made differently. We try to be creative, it’s the dreamer in us” she explains. Thierry Constantin agrees: “We do it for pleasure. It’s a kind of philosophy”.
But the charter has changed some things in its ten years. Winemakers used to expect that nature would give the wine all the strength it needed for a liquoreux. “We have all moved forward. I now know a lot more about the phenomenon of noble rot” Marie-Thérèse admits. “It’s fundamental to making a good wine. But it’s not just the Botrytis. We have always had shrivelled grapes in the Valais and the varieties react differently. Ermitage develops more botrytis than the little arvine or the malvoisie (pinot gris). It’s the balance between the elements that creates a great liquoreux.”
Each year is different
Philippe Darioli explains this balance with a complicated formula. “My little arvine 2004 rates 180° Oechsle, 9 g of acidity, 12.8° alcohol and 195 g of residual sugar.” He explains how hazardous it is. The grapes are picked late, generally between the end of October as in 1994 and the end of December as in 1996, so there’s the risk of rain and snow. What you really need is a wet Autumn with alternate warm winds and storms, so that the botrytis develops. “You have to accept the variations between vintages. You mustn’t blend out the differences between years” emphasizes Marie-Thérèse.
Today, she and others pick in several stages, sometimes as many as four, in order to carefully select the grapes that have developed Botrytis and those that have shrivelled. But for Robert Taramarcaz, of the Domaine des Muses, there’s no contest between the natural, albeit unreliable methods and the “industrial” techniques (drying off the plant, concentration by inverse osmosis or high pressure, and cryo-extraction). “Even if the botrytis erases the flavour of the grape variety, it is worth it to obtain the complexity of the wine.”
Extended maturing in barrels
The charter requires that the wines must mature patiently in oak barrels; they may not be put on the market until at least 18 months after harvesting. “We will go to 24, even 36, months in the barrel. This gives us more stable wines with a lovely colour. And because they are filtered as little as possible we avoid the risk of refermentation.”
Patiently matured, the liquoreux are made to last; “My 94s are not ready! They can be good for twenty years and more” says Marie-Thérèse. But do these wines have a future? The winemaker from Fully doesn’t hide the fact that some customers are asking for a dessert wine that’s lighter and more easily digested, as well as being brighter and sweeter.
The Austrian temptation
The target is the Austrian style: less than 10° alcohol but with high sweetness. “The fashion at present is for less alcohol, more acidity. But if I want my late-picked ermitage at 200° Oechslé to have only 8° alcohol, I’ll only get syrup” says Philippe Darioli. “Richness does not exclude freshness.”
When should these wines be drunk? Always a thorny question. Raphaël Gaudin, ex-sommelier at the Pont-de-Brent who is now in the wine trade in Monthey (VS) has his answer “I stopped trying to match dishes and wines with the great liquoreux a long time ago. They are a dessert in themselves”. The Italians call them “Meditation Wines” but this limits their commercial success. “We only sell in 50 cl bottles and 37.5 cl half bottles” says Simon Lambiel, director of the Domaine de Mont d’Or. “Twenty years ago, apart from us, nobody was really selling much over-ripened wine. But the market has grown; more and more cellars are offering it now.”
A symbolic presence
The niche markets may not be any bigger but there are more of them. The clients are still those who are passionate about wine. But there’s little interest from restaurants except for the “Grandes Tables.”
This doesn’t stop the Charter from introducing itself at important events in Spain and Italy as well as at VINEA in Sierre in the first week of September. And to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the Charter is planning several prestige tastings. It hopes to create some fruitful ties with Sapros “the botrytis wine club” founded in France in 2001, which inspired the Valaisan initiative and brings together the international leaders of the liquoreux.
High flyers among
the “Grains Nobles”
The reliable names
Among the most widely sold liquoreux (but still less than 10,000 litres per year): the amigne Mitis from Jean-René Germanier in Vetroz and the Grains Nobles from the Rouvinez brothers in Sierre. Also the Johannisberg Saint-Martin from Domaine du Mont-d’Or, and the Tourbillon from Provins-Valais, an ermitage made from old vines.
Grain Noble of Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Fully.
The amigne surmaturée from Fabienne Cottagnoud, Cave des Tilleuls in Vétroz
Domaine Cornulus, of Stéphane Reynard and Dany Varone, in Savièse, offers three extraordinary liquoreux: Essence of Botrytis, Clos Corbassières and the ermitage Octoglaive.
A magnificent Ermitage from Denis Mercier in Sierre.
The most distinctive
Grain de Folie from Benoit Dorsaz in Fully.
Larme de décembre from Thierry Constantin in Pont-de-la-Morge.
L’Ermitage, petite arvine and Vent d’Anges from Philippe Darioli in Riddes.
Polymnie-Séduction from Robert
Taramarcaz in Sierre. Valorine from F. Varone in Sion
Marsanne Tardive from Maurice Giroud et fils of La Siseranche in Chamoson.